By Michael Kent
As a librarian, people often question me about the value of the print book in the digital age. After all, many of the books in the collections I serve can be found in digital formats online. While it is true that even the oldest works in Library and Archives Canada’s collections are now accessible in a range of formats online, I maintain that the power of the physical items—and the stories behind them—go far beyond the mere content of the page.
One of the items that evokes this sentiment in a powerful way is the fragment of the 1491 Pentateuch, the Jewish canonical scriptures, from Spain.
This Bible, printed by Eliezer ibn Alantansi in Hijar, Spain, was the last dated Hebrew book printed in Spain before the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492. While the age, the print quality, or the level of scholarship necessary to produce this book alone make it an important work in early printing, it is the story it tells about the expulsion of Spain’s Jews that makes it a powerful item to behold.
Sadly, refugee crises are not new. Currently, our world is in the midst of a global refugee crisis, a crisis we are able to observe almost first-hand due to the rise of social media. The modern world has allowed us to gain an important and humbling glimpse into the struggles of those living in refugee camps.
The breadth of media content, blogs, pictures and personal accounts will allow future generations of scholars to understand the struggles of contemporary refugees in a way previous generations of scholars could never have imagined. But what about past refugees—how do we try to understand the struggles of medieval refugees, their expectations, their former lives, their hopes for the future, and the devastation caused by their upheavals?
These questions represent a tremendous challenge for historians who wish to uncover the experiences of those in the past. History needs to be more than dates and the stories of the elites; the stories of the masses and the collective experiences we need to learn from are the important episodes that should be investigated.
This is where I return to the biblical fragment found in the Lowy collection. From a content-on-the-page perspective, does the Pentateuch represent anything more than a standard Rabbinic Bible, the type that could be downloaded for free? The simple answer is no. Looking outside the text, does this item provide insights into the lives of Spanish Jewry on the eve of expulsion? I believe the answer is a resounding yes.
I look at this page and see a community that saw itself as stable and with a future in Spain. In the early days of printing, a Bible like this would have been a major undertaking. The establishment of communal infrastructure in the form of a printing press, the investment in scholarship, and a major economic undertaking are, to me, evidence that Spain’s Jews saw themselves as secure and with a long and stable future in the Iberian Peninsula. I look at this page and see people who did not imagine the major upheaval and communal devastation that was less than two years away. In short, I see firsthand evidence of one of Medieval Europe’s largest refugee experiences.
As a librarian and curator, I strongly believe in the power of the physical book, a power that goes far beyond the content of the work. While e-books and websites ensure global access to a range of intellectual content, the humbling experience and historic evidence offered by the physical book are irreplaceable.
Michael Kent is the Curator of the Jacob M. Lowy collection